Serena by Ron Rash

September 9, 2009

serena-ron-rash Plot summary (with spoilers): Pemberton, the head of a major logging company in North Carolina in 1929, surprises all his men by returning from a week in Boston with a beautiful new wife in tow. Her name is Serena, and she soon proves to be every bit as knowledgeable about logging as her husband. More importantly, Serena is every bit as ambitious as Pemberton. They’re both determined to cut down as many trees as they can before the federal government swoops in and protects the land as a national forest. It will take some conniving to keep the feds at bay for a while, but Serena and Pemberton are more than up to the task.

Serena and Pemberton seem like a perfectly matched couple. They are both completely and utterly devoted to each other, and eerily seem to know what the other is thinking without even having to say a word. They are on the same wavelength about everything — except for a young woman named Rachel Harmon and infant son Jacob. That’s because Rachel, a kitchen worker at the logging camp, is Pemberton’s ex-lover. Serena is not exactly jealous; she knows that Pemberton loves only her now. But she’s not comfortable having the two of them around.

As the story progresses, we see just how far Serena and Pemberton will go to protect their logging interests and make even more money. Indeed, there seems to be no limit to their destructiveness, as they cold-bloodedly murder anyone who stands in their way or poses the least bit of resistance.

Things begin to change when Serena orders a hit on Rachel and Jacob. Pemberton, though pretending to be in full agreement with his wife, secretly gives money to Rachel to help her escape. Serena subsequently finds out about this, and has Pemberton killed in turn. Ultimately, Serena’s terrible deeds eventually catch up to her in the end, and she gets a taste of her own medicine.


  • I thought Rachel Harmon was the most interesting character of the bunch, and I wish more focus had been placed on her. In fact, this probably would have been a great story if it had been called Rachel and told from her point of view!
  • I actually thought the eagle was pretty cool, too. I enjoyed the descriptions of Serena training the bird to hunt, as well as the scenes where the eagle caught and killed snakes so the men could work. Those were terrific!


  • Serena was painted with such extreme brush strokes that it was hard to think of this character as a “person”. She was a caricature of evil, always getting her way or else killing the people who defied her. She was completely unlikable, which I know is not unheard of even for a main character. But I just hated the way that she always won and always got people to do her bidding for her. And I don’t believe for a second that in the apparent lawlessness of the area, someone didn’t try in earnest to kill her.
  • The plot was mostly ridiculous. There’s no way these people could just go around brazenly killing others, and not have anything at all happen to them. I didn’t buy that aspect for one second, which greatly diminished my capacity to enjoy the book.
  • I thought the author should have gone into Serena and Pemberton’s early relationship a bit more to show why the two were completely devoted to each other. It just didn’t make sense that they would feel that way after a one-week courtship. Sure, I get that Serena was naturally beautiful, was ultra-thin without having to spend a fortune on the best weight loss pills, and had a shrewd head for business, but still… Was that enough to engender undying devotion in Pemberton?


Serena by Ron Rash was on the Editor’s Choice List for the best fiction of 2008. Therefore, I was expecting this to be a great book with an engrossing plot and dynamic characters. Instead, I found it to be highly contrived, full of happy coincidences for the main duo, and headed by caricatures instead of characters. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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